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Book Review: Gates of Fire

February 27, 2013 1 comment

I saw 300; I’ve even read Frank Miller’s graphic novel that inspired the movie, so I wasn’t completely unprepared when I was handed a copy of Gates of Fire (by Steven Pressfield) and told, “This is one of my favorite books. You have to read it.” Though historical fiction isn’t normally my cup of tea, especially when its main characters are warriors and its main plot is a bloody battle wherein (SPOILER ALERT) they all die, I gave it a try.

Woo, buddy

Considering I have a healthy appreciation for the Spartans when they show up at Dragon*Con, I figured it was the least I could do.

The story is that of the battle of Thermopylae, otherwise known as the Hot Gates, a conflict between the invading Persian armies of King Xerxes and the defending Greeks who decided that the Hot Gates were the best place to die the best place to attempt to hold back the masses of Persians and their slaves who are in love with the idea of world domination. In order to better understand the Greeks, especially the Spartans, Xerxes has the one survivor of the battle, a dying slave to the Spartans named Xeones, tell them everything he knows about the Spartans.

Of course, it’s not that simple, otherwise the book would be about fifty pages long and would end most likely on the down note of Xeones getting put out of his misery after telling all. Instead, it starts when Xeones was a child, living happily, and his town gets sacked by some other Greeks, but he escapes to eventually wind up as a slave-squire to one of the Spartans who gets sent to Thermopylae as one of the three hundred.

Well, not actually as one of the three hundred. I mean, he is a squire to one of the Official Three Hundred Spartans, but it’s not like they were the only warriors to show up.

You see, part of what makes Gates of Fire a fantastic book is that Pressfield has a penchant for research, so much of what made it into the book is actually historically true and you end up actually learning something (which is another reason why I don’t normally read historical fiction–who needs stealth learning? My gosh).

What I mostly learned about the three hundred is that there was actually a bit more than three hundred people from Sparta showing up at the Hot Gates. There were three hundred actual, true Spartan citizens and then eleventy billion slaves-of-the-Spartans (okay, like a thousand, maybe) who showed up to be squires and blacksmiths and the like.

There were also Greeks from other city-states like Athens and Corinth and Mycenae hanging around waiting to get slaughtered…I mean…beat back the Persians. Granted, most of those are sent home by the Spartans at the end of the battle so they don’t get killed, but it’s still a bit of a misnomer to say “Only the three hundred Spartans held back Xerxes!”

So, if you’re interested in a compelling, well-written book in which you might actually learn a few historical facts, put this one on your to-read list.

Pressfield, Steven. Gates Of Fire, An Epic Novel Of The Battle Of Thermopylae. Bantam: Bantam, 2007. Print. ISBN: 055338368X

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Book Review: Silver Sparrow

February 12, 2013 1 comment

I started reading this at the beginning of the two hour plane ride from Baltimore to Atlanta. I’m not entirely sure, but I don’t think I looked up for more than the two seconds it takes to tell the flight attendant that I’d like a Coke and to accept my bag of These Are Pretzels, Not Peanuts, So You’re Not Allowed to be Allergic. The storytelling of Silver Sparrow is that engrossing.

It tells the tale of two girls who share the same father. His older daughter, Dana, begins her side of the story with “My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist.” She is the daughter who knows, but is also the daughter who is hidden. She and her mother watch her sister, Chaurisse, as the two girls grow up, but they are under strict orders from James to never have anything to do with his quote-unquote real family. As Dana grows up, she realizes more and more what her situation means, but tries to content herself in the knowledge that she is more special, somehow better, than Chaurisse and her mother because she knows.

Chaurisse, on the other hand, has a stable family environment; her father has his own chauffeuring business, so his hours being erratic doesn’t put up any red flags for her or her mother. Unaware that she is being watched, or that her choices affect more than herself (for example, Dana doesn’t get to work a summer at the Six Flags over Atlanta theme park because Chaurisse has already accepted a job there), she lives in a sort of blissful ignorance until she meets Dana by chance (she thinks) and is both shocked and delighted that a beautiful “silver girl” like Dana would want to be her friend.

My plane landed just as I was getting to what I thought was going to be THE BIG REVEAL, but I couldn’t read and get my luggage, and meet my ride while still reading, so hours later I finally got to sit down again and be taken on another tiny rollercoaster before THE ULTIMATE BIG REVEAL. The story is so engaging that even though I despise flying with every ounce of my being, I was still annoyed that the plane landed before I was finished.

I really don’t know if I’ll be able to sit down and read the book again–maybe to look for all the hints as I go along–but it feels like some of the magic would be lost were I to do that. I loved the way that Jones spaces out the information so that the book is a series of secrets and surprises, and the first reading is always the best for stories like that.

Jones, Tayari. Silver Sparrow. Chapel Hill: Algonquin Paperbacks, 2011. Print. ISBN: 978-1-61620-142-5